by Oliver Maksan*
“Ahlan wa sahlan. Welcome,” is Archbishop Amel Nona’s friendly greeting to an anxious looking veiled woman who enters his office. He offers her a seat.
“She has just come here to Tilkef from Mosul on foot with one of her sons seeking safety,” says the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, translating the agitated words of the Muslim woman. “There have been skirmishes between the government and the Sunni rebels. That’s why she fled.”
There are only three kilometres between Mosul and the Christian town of Tilkef. But they are now worlds apart since the Islamists conquered the town.
“We welcome everybody here, be they Christian or Muslim,” Nona says. “This is what our faith teaches us: to help everyone regardless of religion. God loves everyone. That’s why we should help all.”
In fact the Church has opened its schools, kindergartens and community rooms not only to Christians, but also to Muslim families. In Alqosh, a Christian town about 20 kilometers from Mosul, they have taken in 150 Muslim families in addition to 500 Christian ones. In Tilkef more than 700 refugee families have been taken in, including Muslims. The town is bursting at the seams. Refugees have even been accommodated in a print shop for liturgical literature. Like the father Habib’s family of five.
“We left everything behind in Mosul. We were able to rescue the clothes we are wearing, documents and a few bags from Mosul. That’s all that’s left. I don’t know whether we will ever be able to go back there,” the Chaldean Catholic explains. He shrugs his shoulder. “And I don’t know what the future will bring.”
Archbishop Nona knows what the people are going through. He has become a refugee himself. When the jihadist terrorists of ISIS took over Mosul three weeks ago he and about 5000 Christians fled from Iraq’s second largest town. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have also attempted to find protection from the cruel holy warriors. Their number is estimated at about 450,000. Most of them have found refuge in the autonomous Kurdish areas.
“My diocese no longer exists. ISIS have taken it from me,” the Archbishop says. At the present time, according to Nona, three quarters of the approximately 10,000 members of his diocese are on the run. “I don’t know whether they will ever be able to return to Mosul.”
The mood of the people is correspondingly somber.
“There is no room for us Christians in the Middle East,” one woman says. She also fled from Mosul. She has four children. “Where are they supposed to go now? There’s nothing keeping us in Iraq any more. First the 2003 war. Then the subsequent confusion when we Christians became the target of fanatics. And now this. We want to get to the west as soon as possible.” But she has no illusions. “I know from relatives that it isn’t easy to start a new life there. But at least it’s safe. I don’t want my children to grow up in fear.”
The bishops are quite clear about what their flock think. At the synod which ended last week they sought desperately for answers to the crisis which the advance of ISIS has sparked.
“It’s not only the present refugee crisis,” Archbishop Nona says. “The problem is that because of the advance of ISIS and the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites all Christians feel unsafe in Iraq. They have lost their faith in a future here.”
At the same time the bloodletting suffered by Iraqi Christianity, a movement going back to the Apostle Thomas, is not new. Archbishop Nona reckons that more than 25,000 Chaldeans were living in Mosul alone prior to 2003, when the Americans came to topple Saddam Hussein. Before the current exodus this figure was just 5000. In all, Iraqi Christianity has lost about two thirds of its previously 1.2 million adherents in ten years to the region and foreign countries in the west.
The bishops are now placing their hope in Kurdistan. This autonomous zone in the north of Iraq has for years become a refuge for Christians from turbulent parts of the country such as Mosul and Baghdad. It is here, the bishops believe, that they could find a new home.
“Aid to the Church in Need” has granted 100,000 euros (136,000 USD) in emergency aid for refugees from Mosul.
*Oliver Maksan writes for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA);www.acnuk.org (UK);www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL);www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)